Rapid-presentation event-related functional MRI (ER-fMRI) allows neuroimaging methods based on hemodynamics to employ behavioral task paradigms typical of cognitive settings. However, the sluggishness of the hemodynamic response and its variance provide constraints on how ER-fMRI can be applied. In a series of two studies, estimates of the hemodynamic response in or near the primary visual and motor cortices were compared across various paradigms and sampling procedures to determine the limits of ER-fMRI procedures and, more generally, to describe the behavior of the hemodynamic response. The temporal profile of the hemodynamic response was estimated across overlapping events by solving a set of linear equations within the general linear model. No assumptions about the shape were made in solving the equations. Following estimation of the temporal profile, the amplitude and timing were modeled using a γ function. Results indicated that (1) within a region, for a given subject, estimation of the hemodynamic response is extremely stable for both amplitude (r2 = 0.98) and time to peak (r2 = 0.95), from one series of measurements to the next, and slightly less stable for estimation of time to onset (r2 = 0.60). (2) As the trial presentation rate changed (from those spaced 20 s apart to temporally overlapping trials), the hemodynamic response amplitude showed a small, but significant, decrease. Trial onsets spaced (on average) 5 s apart showed a 17-25% reduction in amplitude compared to those spaced 20 s apart. Power analysis indicated that the increased number of trials at fast rates outweighs this decrease in amplitude if statistically reliable response detection is the goal. (3) Knowledge of the amplitude and timing of the hemodynamic response in one region failed to predict those properties in another region, even for within- subject comparisons. (4) Across subjects, the amplitude of the response showed no significant correlation with timing of the response, for either time-to-onset or time-to-peak estimates. (5) The within-region stability of the response was sufficient to allow offsets in the timing of the response to be detected that were under a second, placing event-related fMRI methods in a position to answer questions about the change in relative timing between regions. (C) 2000 Academic Press.